Charter Confusion
What They Know Just Ain't So

Buried in the findings of the recently issued 38th annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools are some useful eye-openers for the charter school community. Unfortunately, because charter advocates have grown accustomed to dismissing or denouncing the poll for its sometimes ill-phrased questions and dubious wording when it comes to school choice, there's a good chance these findings will be overlooked. That would be a mistake.

Resident Scholar Frederick M. Hess
Resident Scholar Frederick M. Hess
While charter supporters have spent the past few years discussing quality control, creating--and rebutting--analyses of charter performance, and celebrating success stories, they may have overlooked the fact that most Americans still don't have the faintest idea what a charter school is or how it operates.

Preposterous, you say? It's easy to imagine that by now the public is generally familiar with the charter school phenomenon. The first charter law was enacted fifteen years ago, there are today nearly 4,000 charter schools in operation, charter enrollment has topped the million student mark, and in more than a dozen cities charters enroll 15% or more of K-12 students. This includes such fair-sized media markets as New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City; Detroit; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Buffalo; and Milwaukee. Surely, one may assume, media coverage would have produced a base level of public familiarity with charter schooling. But wait just one moment.

For the first time, this year's Gallup poll asked respondents some simple, factual questions about charter schools. Most telling, as always, are not the things that people don't know, but the things they know for certain that just aren't so.

Asked whether it's true or false that "a charter school is a public school," just 39% of respondents told Gallup that the statement was "true," while 53% said charters are not public schools.

When asked if "charter schools are free to teach religion," 50% said they are and just 34% said they are not.

Asked whether "charter schools can charge tuition," 60% of respondents said that they can and just 29% said that they can't.

And asked if "charter schools can select students on the basis of ability," 58% said that they may and just 29% said that they may not.

The numbers don't vary much between parents of children in public schools and other respondents, though modest differences emerge on two questions. On the matter of charging tuition, "just" 54% of parents think charters can do so--compared to 63% of non-parents. On the other hand, parents of schoolchildren are somewhat more likely than the general public to think that charters can teach religion: 57% of parents versus 48% of non-parents.

The bottom line: A majority of respondents understand charter schools to be "non-public" schools that can teach religion, and two-thirds think charters are free to charge tuition and select students based on academic ability. As Gallup dryly reports, "Responses indicat[e] that the [charter] concept is not clearly understood."

Fifteen years on, what most Americans "know" about charters is factually incorrect--egregiously incorrect, even. It's not just that people are unsure or randomly incorrect--it's that they are systematically incorrect in ways that paint charters in the worst possible light. In politics, they call this failing to get your message out. That so many have such wrong ideas also raises a question about the degree to which charter critics have been successful at spreading disinformation or systematically confusing the public.

Being mislabeled as "private" and selective is damning because Americans embrace what Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe has termed the "public school ideology." Moe, a staunch advocate of school choice, has reported, for instance, that 41% of non-parents and 40% of public school parents agree with the statement, "The more children attend public schools, rather than private or parochial schools, the better it is for American society." Similarly, Moe has found that 43% of public school parents-and even 17% of private school parents!-agree with the statement, "I believe in public education, and I wouldn't feel right putting my kids in private or parochial school." While such data suggest that school voucher proposals face grave doubts from two-fifths of the American public, charters ought not face the same resistance. One of charter schooling's great strengths is that it can appeal to those who embrace the public school ethos and reject school vouchers and exam schools.

Now for the surprise twist. Although most Americans think charters are tuition-charging, student-selecting private schools, a clear majority now tells Gallup that it nonetheless favors charter schooling. When these schools are described as "operat[ing] under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools," respondents supported charters 53% to 34%. Among public school parents, that lead stretched to 28 points-59% to 31%. Among non-parents, charters are favored 50% to 37%.

Those figures show dramatic growth in support over the past seven years. In 2000, Gallup reported that just 42% of Americans supported charters, while 47% opposed them; in 2002, the figures had crept to 44% in favor and 43% opposed; and, by 2005, to 49% and 41%. In other words, since 2000, charter schools have enjoyed a positive 24-point swing in support-despite the fact that most people either don't understand them or have a negative perception of how they operate. If the public actually knew that charters can't teach religion, can't select their students, can't charge tuition, and are indeed recognized as "public" schools, the reservoir of skepticism that charter foes draw from when fighting to stifle charters might begin to dry up.

There are two key lessons here for charter advocates.

First, even under adverse conditions, Gallup reports substantial and growing support for the idea of charter schooling. A significant number of adults who believe that charters are "non-public" schools still say they favor them.

Second, even as the public warms to key elements of charters, most Americans still don't have any idea what charter schools are. Advocates have sometimes gotten so engaged in courting friendly public officials, debating statistics, buffing the public image of charters, and struggling with finances and facilities that they've forgotten the fundamentals--educating the public.

Perhaps this inattention comes from the mistaken belief that the public already knows what charter schools are, and that the debate has now shifted to questions of demonstrated results. That's clearly not the case. Americans are far less likely to be convinced by data on charter performance if they think charter schools are free to hand-pick students and charge tuition. Maybe it's time to get back to the basics.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI.
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